John Logan has written many devilish characters for the screen, like Sweeney Todd, Silva from Skyfall, and The Aviator’s take on Howard Hughe. But Logan has created a more ambiguous con man in his new Blumhouse’s movie, They / Them: Owen Whistler, leader of his family’s LGBTQ + conversion camp, is portrayed by Kevin Bacon. He soothes his suspicious queer campers by using calm, therapeutic rhetoric; he does it to disengage the campers and earn their trust.
Or – as Logan tells MovieMaker – “using the language of the angels to serve the devil.”
They / Them isn’t about any ordinary summer camp. Its counselors throw campers for another loop when they say conversion as optional, but those who engage in the therapy experience a “new sense of freedom.” The facade of “choice” reveals itself when Whistler’s counselors proceed to psychologically break down each camper, even those unwilling to participate. A final threat emerges when a mysterious killer starts claiming victims, forcing the campers into a battle for their identity and their lives.
John Logan is one of Hollywood’s most in-demand writers, but had surprisingly never directed a feature before They / Them. He spoke with us about his lifelong obsession with horror movies, and why he chose They / Them as his first stab at the genre. Logan talks about his discovery that not all LGBTQ + conversion camps are religious, and why, as a gay man, he thinks writing trans and non-binary characters isn’t a cancellable offense. He also opines on “elevated horror” and how some LGBTQ + people find themselves going along with the fraud of conversion therapy.
Joshua Encinias: You’ve always been loved monsters, but in They / Them, the monsters are those who try to change LGBTQ people. Why is your story about a different kind of monster?
John Logan: It was my own experience in loving horror, so from the time I was six, and being in love with watching horror movies. But, as I grew up, and grew more aware, queer people in horror movies were either non-existent, or when they were present, they were jokes or victims. That’s always bothered me because horror has a very complicated relationship with gender and sexual identity. So I wanted to write something specifically about gender in a horror genre context. And I met some people who’d been through so-called “gay conversion.” They shared their stories with me, which were terrifying, and not even so much for the physical duress – which was extreme – as for the psychological gamesmanship and the psychological attacks that were chipping away at their identity. That coalesced into wanting to write a movie with queer heroes. The kind of movie I wish I had seen when I was twelve. And that’s what I wrote.
Joshua Encinias: Horror movies are usually made by up-and-coming filmmakers and a few directors who hang out in the genre, but not Oscar-nominated writers. What inspired you to go in this direction?
John Logan: I have the luxury to be able to write what I want, whether that’s a play, TV series or movies. And at the beginning of COVID lockdowns, suddenly everything stopped, so myself and every writer I know suddenly had a moment to sit and think for a second. We all asked, “What do I want to say, what do I want to write, and what do I want to create as an artist?” I kept coming back to this idea as being very personal. When I wrote it, no one knew I was writing it. My husband didn’t know I was writing it. My agents didn’t know. I just wrote it because it was very personal to me and I wanted to write something unique. That’s what led to it and I had the freedom to do it. And thankfully, Jason Blum loved the idea as much as I did.
Joshua Encinias: Did you research real conversion therapy camps to draw inspiration for Whistler Camp? What did you learn?
John Logan: Yes, oh God, yes. I learned that they’re all over the place. I’m a Californian and I learned that I can get in my car right now and drive to a gay conversion camp. One thinks at a certain point, liberal humanism has become the doctrine of the land, and I realized that for a lot of this land, that is not the case. So, first of all, the extent that this was going on, and the extent that it wasn’t always religious, really surprised me. I assumed there would be a religious patina over most so-called “gay conversion.” And it’s not, necessarily. Sometimes it’s couched in other terms. When you meet survivors of these places, it’s hard not to be moved by what these individuals have to go through to fight to be who they are against overwhelming odds. The dramatist in me is drawn to the underdog having to fight against a powerful force. The human being in me is moved by that, because it’s not always easy being queer. We are not always beloved. We don’t all live in California and Greenwich Village, and it’s a tougher world sometimes. To grapple with that in artistic terms was something that I felt I needed to do.
Joshua Encinias: To your point that conversion therapy camps are not all religious in nature, they’re almost universally depicted that way in every form of media. Will you talk about the Whistler Camp’s approach and why they don’t use religious rhetoric?
John Logan: We wanted to create a sense of the dislocation for the campers getting off that bus, because they don’t know what they’re stepping into. What they stepped into is a beautiful setting, so working with our cinematographer, Lyn Moncrief, we wanted the camp to be beautiful with nice buildings where the sun is always shining… because it’s a great con. The idea that they’re welcoming and you don’t need to fear them makes the kids vulnerable. So we wanted to make the camp more and more sinister as the movie went on. We reveal significant locations like the shed at night, and we start filming through through the trees, which adds to building a sense of dread to everything. It matches what Kevin Bacon’s character Owen does. He seems so approachable, and gradually that mask slips away. You know, some of the kids I talked to who’ve been through conversion therapy talk about that. The first day isn’t so terrible. They think they’re just going to lecture them a little bit. And then as weeks and months go on, it can get more extreme.
Joshua Encinias: You mentioned liberal humanism, and Owen Whistler assails it in the movie. From my viewpoint, it’s under attack from the right by stripping people of their rights, and under attack from the left by policing speech. What shape is liberal humanism in and can it recover?
John Logan: I think it’s in a treacherous state. Yes, it can recover. But I think it’s in a treacherous state. I mean, assumptions I made about empathy and understanding between human beings, between Americans, have been threatened severely over the past few years and continue to be threatened and now codified legally, which is even more terrifying to me personally. But I believe we’re robust people and liberal and empathetic at heart. So, I can only hope that as we move forward, we move forward with civility and with some understanding that the differences between us make us more glorious and stronger than the opposite.
Joshua Encinias: How did you handle writing and directing trans and non-binary material in They / Them that some might say doesn’t belong to you?
John Logan: I don’t really believe the ownership of myth and of storytelling. I think artists need to be free to imagine, to dream, to create in voices other than their own. And nationalities other than their own, and races and genders other than their own. Having said that, it was important to me to be very responsible to the non-binary actors, to the trans actors, and to be open to communication with them. So while I think as a universal statement, that I think any writer should be able to write anything, and any director should be able to direct anything, and any actor should be able to play any part in this world of ours — and that’s something we in the theater have been doing for 50 years, colorblind casting and gender blind casting — I think it’s got to be done with respect, and you have to be an adult about it. So when I started working with Theo Germain, who plays Jordan, I said, “Look, I’m not transgender. I’m not non-binary. I know help me. Help me write the most authentic version of this character to serve this story. ” All the actors were very generous with their own experience and I think the movie benefits from the authenticity of those actors.
Joshua Encinias: Do you think horror movies need to be “elevated” with a message for them to be valuable in 2022?
John Logan: No, no, of course not. I think entertainment, in and of itself, is a great release and a necessary therapeutic. We need to tell each other stories, whether they’re stories that provoke our minds, or make us laugh, or inspire our hearts, it’s a necessary function of being a human. They / Them to me is a popular movie – it should be an entertaining movie for general audiences. Do I believe there is a humane purpose to it? Of course I do. But first and foremost, it’s meant to be an entertainment.
Joshua Encinias: The scene where Zane and Sarah look at pictures of the same-sex campers they find attractive so they can have sex with each other is a brief glimpse into how powerless these camps are to actually change people. Why do you think people go along with it even though conversion therapy is a fraud?
John Logan: I think people want to be accepted by their families, by their schools, by their congregations. And not everyone lives in a world where you can be accepted as a queer person. So the idea of wanting to pass, or stay in the closet, or to pretend to be something you’re not, that’s a powerful pull to a lot of people in the world. One of the things I hope this movie says very clearly, in bold letters, is you’re fucking perfect just the way you are. Celebrate yourself for who you are. Not everyone will love you for it. Not everyone will accept you for it. But without that sense of empowered self, I don’t see that life is much worth limiting.